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Is There a Difference between Being “Gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered”?

November 10, 2011

Being “gospel-centered” is in. Today you can find books or blogs on gospel-centered marriages, gospel-centered familiesgospel-powered parenting, gospel-centered ministry, gospel-centered discipleship, a gospel-centered life, leading a gospel-driven church. There’s even a publishing house committed to gospel-centered publishing.

This is a beautiful thing, and in my estimation, every one of those resources is to be commended. But the ever-expanding use of the term “gospel-centered” raises a few questions in many minds: What precisely does it mean to be “gospel-centered”? How is this different from what many evangelical churches have focused on before? And perhaps more specifically, is this idea any different than the older, more common expression of being “Christ-centered”?

A Rose By Any Other Name?

On the one hand, if we understand these ideas biblically and theologically, then you cannot be gospel-centered without being Christ-centered, since the gospel is the good news of what God has done to establish his kingdom through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you cannot be Christ-centered without being gospel-centered, because the gospel of God’s grace is what bears witness to Jesus and the power for salvation in him (Rom. 1:16). So at a basic level, those who prefer one term over the other to describe the focus of their church or ministry are generally after the same thing—a ministry aimed at honoring Christ and helping others to know and serve him.

But this is not to say that the terms are therefore synonymous, or that neither is susceptible to being hijacked to describe ideas that are quite foreign to their biblical moorings.

Words, Words, Words

In reality, the term “Christ-centered” can be just as ambiguous. Consider the pervasive culture of performance among North American evangelicals. By this I mean the view of Christianity that sees the gospel of grace as the means to beginning a relationship with God, but our own effort and hard work as the means of growing in that relationship (as opposed to what Scripture says in places like Titus 2:11-14, where our relationship and growth are by grace from beginning to end). There is a whole army of Christians today spending their days in quiet desperation as they try to live a Christ-centered life without depending upon the very strength of Christ and his Spirit to do so. Many who prefer the language of “gospel-centered” do so to avoid this kind of performance-based misunderstanding, hoping that by specifying “the gospel” we’re pointing people not just to the person of Jesus, but the grace that comes from the work of Jesus on the cross.

But being “gospel-centered” is equally open to misunderstanding or misuse. Perhaps the most common one I encounter is to think that by being “gospel-centered” we’re talking about being evangelism-centered. In this sense, a gospel-centered church is all about (and only about) outreach. This is not what most mean by the term, and comes from a misunderstanding similar to the one that fuels performance-based Christianity—the mistaken notion that the gospel is just for non-Christians.

Another live threat is the temptation for those who regularly use the phrase “gospel-centered” to let it become a mere trend or even a codeword for a narrow brand of evangelicalism, wherein by “gospel-centered” we really mean reformed complementarians who preach from the ESV—the kind of folks who hang out at conferences like The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel. Now I fit squarely in that camp. I hold both those doctrines with strong conviction, I love the ESV (though I’m happy to preach from several translations), and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both those conferences. Moreover, many in this camp have done a lot of the recent spadework to help people re-appropriate the gospel for all of life (not just for getting in the door). But to use the phrase “gospel-centered” to refer to this camp is to co-opt the word “gospel.” The gospel is news about Jesus, not a label for a select few of his followers. In fact, a few members of this camp have recently expressed this very concern.

The Short and the Long of It

The point of all this is not to battle over terminology and semantics. Christ and his gospel are not in competition with each other!  The point, rather, is to emphasize clarity. Whatever term one lands on to describe the focus of their church or ministry needs to be carefully defined and explained.

At Westgate  Church, we recently revised our vision statement. It reads, “Our vision is to be a gospel-centered church living each day on mission for Christ.” A lot of thoughtful discussion went into the process of drafting the statement and explanation, some of which dealt with whether it should read “gospel-centered” or “Christ-centered.” We chose to use “gospel-centered,” not because we want to be less Christ-centered, but because we felt the phrase was a little more specific than “Christ-centered.”

In particular, we felt “gospel-centered” told us more about who is at the center of our lives: not just Jesus, but the Triune God—the Father, who sent his eternal Son, Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3-14).

We also felt that “gospel-centered” points us to what God has done and is doing: Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us, God is rescuing people from their sins, restoring them to a right relationship with him, and changing their lives to love and serve him (Rom. 1:16; Col. 1:15-23). Being gospel-centered means recognizing that everything flows out from and points back to what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Just as importantly, the gospel tells us how God is doing his redeeming and transforming work: by grace, as the Holy Spirit applies the truth of God’s Word to our lives (Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 2:1-10). This is perhaps the foremost reason we favored the specificity of “gospel-centered” over “Christ-centered.”

The gospel affirms that our sin really is sinful, but that God’s grace in Jesus really is sufficient to deal with our sin (Rom. 3:9-26). Thus, by “gospel-centered,” we’re trying to avoid both potential abuses of grace—ignoring it in legalistic performance, or exploiting it in shameless self-indulgence. We want our congregation to have a full-orbed view of the gospel’s application to life. It’s not just a message for non-Christians, as if once we begin our relationship with God by grace through faith, we then grow and serve God by works and human effort. Rather, the same grace of God that was at work by the Spirit to rescue us from sin’s penalty also transforms, equips, and strengthens the whole of Christian life and mission (Titus 2:11-14). As long as we continue to sin and be sinned against, as long as we are tempted to make much of ourselves at the expense of others, or to give our deepest affection and allegiance to things other than God, we remain in need of God’s grace, which is available only in the gospel. We never outgrow our need for the gospel of Jesus.

Finally, we felt that “gospel-centered” also captured why God is doing what he’s doing: to make much of his name and glory throughout all creation in accordance with his sovereign plan (Eph. 1:3-14). At the end of the day the gospel is about God and his glory—nothing less, nothing else. For this reason it should be the foremost burden and passion of our hearts.

Being gospel-centered means keeping the gospel of Jesus as the main thing. As a church, we are always being tempted to put something other than the gospel at the center of our community and mission. Many of these are good things—things  like family, small groups, music, preaching, missions, youth group, food pantries, liturgy, choir, children’s ministries, outreach, and so on. But none of these things are able to give shape, direction, and significance to everything we do. None of them are able to empower everything we do. And therefore none of them should stand at the center. When we take a secondary thing and make it primary, we actually distract ourselves from our real mission and feed fragmentation among our community.

Now all of this simply explains some of our reasoning behind using the term, “gospel-centered.” It doesn’t flesh out the implications or the kind of fruit we desire to see the gospel bear in and through us. That’s for another post. Nor does claiming a particular term necessarily translate into living that way. At best, it gives you direction for where you’re going.

Once again, the point is, whether you favor the language of “gospel-centered” or “Christ-centered” or some other variation, it’s essential to be clear with what you mean in order to help others be faithful to God and his vision to make much of himself among his people through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the power of his Spirit.

For FurtherReading:

Joe Thorn, “Gospel-Centered.”

For a rather expanse list of related resources, see Timmy Brister, “A Gospel-Centered Reader.”

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